Parents of children with LD often complain about their child’s endless procrastination, particularly when it comes to homework. Parents find themselves having to act as homework police: tension mounts, voices rise, and before they know it, they hear themselves accusing their child of being lazy or unmotivated.
Volumes have been written about ways to handle procrastination, most of which boils down to common sense advice: break assignments into manageable chunks, use structure and support, prioritize, and don’t take on too much at once.
Unfortunately these well-established fixes don’t always solve the problem for children with LD.
Being in school all day can be exhausting, particularly for a child struggling with learning issues. Having to do more schoolwork at home may feel like too much. In addition to frustration and fatigue, anxiety can play a large role in procrastination. The idea of schoolwork creates an emotional reaction, and this reaction may lead to avoiding homework.
In my work with stress management, I define stress/anxiety as the perception of threat beyond our coping skills. What’s important here is that stress is a perception. The issue is how the child perceives the work to be done.
Most of us have negative ways of thinking that are typical of us: “No way I can please everyone,” or “I am not good enough.” Recognizing that kids experience anxiety based on these kinds of thoughts allows us to help them learn to substitute a more positive way of thinking.
Following is a 7-point plan to deal with your child’s procrastination:
- Figure out the negative thought. It’s usually the same one over and over. Typical thoughts are “I can never do this on my own;” “I’m too dumb;” “If I don’t do this right/perfectly, I’ll get in trouble;” “People always expect too much of me.” Gain insight into your child’s thinking, by encouraging him to explain how he feels, even if you don’t agree.
- Postpone talking if your child is upset. Let him know that things will be better when he has a chance to calm down, and encourage whatever activity he uses to help him regain his composure. I suggest having children meditate before bed to become adept at that self-calming skill. Taking some deep breaths, having a snack, listening to music, etc. are also useful techniques.
- Help your child to feel understood. Even if you don’t agree, he needs to know that you understand his point of view. Once he’s confident of that, encourage him to reframe his thoughts: “I know you’re thinking that this is impossible. But I also know that when you’ve faced a big challenge before, and told yourself to try even a little, you’ve found that it wasn’t as hard as you thought it would be.”
- Establish a simple plan. Ask him what he can do to improve the situation. If he doesn’t have any ideas, suggest options such as setting a reasonable time limit on the task, or talking to the teacher. If he’s not able to advocate for himself, you can talk to the teacher to see if the assignment can be modified (e.g., limiting the amount of time to work on it, having fewer problems, allowing your child to hand in whatever he is able to do, etc.) You might get that in writing since many kids believe their teachers won’t accept an assignment that isn’t complete.
- Reward increments of work. A child sick of hearing “have to…” is right—there are a lot of those. We need to acknowledge that homework is hard, rather than deny it. Consider rewarding a segment of homework time with a segment of guilt-free fun time. Even if work is done in smaller chunks, it’s better to accomplish something rather than nothing. It’s likely he’ll realize that the work is less intimidating than it seemed, but don’t push expanding the time too quickly or by too much. As his work habits improve, gradually extend the work portion of the tradeoff, while still keeping some fun time.
- Keep expectations in check. Fear of success and feelings of inadequacy are not unusual thoughts. Your child may be concerned that doing well will lead to heightened expectations going forward. You need to have realistic expectations based on where your child is starting, not where you’d like him to end up.
- Praise your child. Congratulate him for effort, not product!
If you realize that avoidance is a way of handling anxiety, you’ll be a little less angry when your child tries to cover up having work or delaying it. To employ a strategy that works is a win-win: your child doesn’t have to feel guilty or get in trouble, some work gets done, and you can be a supportive parent instead of the homework police.
Marcia Eckerd is an evaluator, consultant, and therapist who specializes in working with children with NLD and autism-spectrum disorders.